I’M HERE in London today for the opening of an exhibition of recent paintings and
drawings by Elizabeth Butterworth at the Redfern Gallery. Her gouaches and watercolours
include parrots, birds of paradise and birds of prey but the centrepiece of the exhibition
is a series of black wing drawings, each 3 or 4 feet long, drawn in contë crayon.
They resonate with power, not so much because of their scale but because of the measured
intensity of observation in them. In the present constitutional crisis, if an angel
of judgement was to be seen perched on the crenellations of the Palace of Westminster,
it would have wings like these.
On a more intimate and inviting scale are her studies; I put on my reading glasses
for a closer look at these. My drawing journaler friend Roz Stehndahl has said that
she makes great efforts, when drawing birds, to observe the connection between beak
and feathery head - she sees this as crucial to understanding the character of a
bird, which betrays its reptilian ancestry in such details. This area receives intense
observation in Butterworth’s studies with careful drawings, colour swatches and written
notes. Details like the suborbital rings (around the eye) are subjected to similar
I first met Elizabeth Butterworth when we were students at the Royal College of Art,
she in painting, myself in natural history illustration. I was curious to catch up
on her work and to see - as happens with some artists - whether the palette she uses
has changed over the years. To judge by the swatches and colour notes her palette
is as wide-ranging as ever in her search for the precise colour of plumage. She’ll
test the watercolour or guoache ranges of several manufacturer’s to match the intense
blue of a parrot’s feather or the cinnamon brown of a buzzard.
But the assured tonal control in the black wings bring her full circle because, when
I first met her, she was working a series of etchings in which soft, feathery wings
were sometimes paired with shiny metallic jet engines. After 30 years, her work has
lost none of its power.
In one corner there’s an elegant study of three feathers from a Lear’s Macaw. If
they ever discover a new, related species it should be named Butterworth’s Macaw.
Working in the same tradition, she’s a worthy successor to Edward Lear.
Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo- Calyptorhynchus funereus Gouache on paper 71.1 x 53.3
cm, by Elizabeth Butterworth reproduced from the invitation to the Redfern Gallery
Detail from one of my student sketchbooks, Tuesday 14th January 1975; drawing Liz’s
two scarlet and gold macaws, Lou and Oscar:
“Delightful birds. As soon as I’d walked in Lou waddled towards me and took the toe
of my shoe in his beak. Then Oscar came along and there was an arguement as to who
was entitled to bite my toe which was solved by them tackling a foot each. But they’re
not allowed to try and pull visitors to pieces so they found other things to do.
Lou found a tiny hole in the carpet and stuck his beak through that. They’re remarkably
expressive in faces & gestures. Looking for the next thing they can do.”